High-dollar video chats and online ads. How Biden and Trump raise money in a pandemic.

By Alex Daugherty and David Smiley

April 11, 2020 07:00 AM, Updated 1 hour 47 minutes ago


The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures have changed the playbook for political campaigns.

In-person events are on hold, as are field operations designed to engage supporters and sway on-the-fence voters.

But the need to raise money ahead of the November election remains.

Thursday afternoon, a Joe Biden donor sent out an email invitation to a campaign fundraiser hosted by Florida’s only statewide Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

But instead of a reception for donors to hear from the presumptive Democratic nominee in-person, donors who pay at least $1,000 will get access to a virtual fundraiser where Biden will address his plan for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Later Thursday, shortly before the White House coronavirus task force briefing was set to begin, the Trump campaign sent out an email blast seeking $37 donations, the average donation amount for the Trump campaign so far this cycle. Ten minutes later, the Biden campaign sent out a small-dollar fundraising email of its own.

The Trump campaign said the coronavirus has disrupted its operation, especially with the president unable to fly around the country and address thousands of supporters during his signature rallies.

But they said the campaign has plenty of resources to weather a slowdown in donations as many Americans worry about their jobs and income. At the end of February, the campaign had $94 million on hand.

“The Republican National Committee is in an incredibly strong position to overcome any disruption caused by coronavirus,” RNC National Press Secretary Mandi Merritt said in a statement. “Because of the enthusiasm and support we’ve seen month after month for President Trump, we have built incredible reserves. And, even during a time that is dominated by self-quarantines and social distancing, we expect to post very strong numbers.”

The Trump campaign said it has invested in digital and direct mail platforms to engage voters without face-to-face contact. They’re also continuing to spend money on ads, with $1.6 million spent on Google and Facebook from March 29 to April 4.

“President Trump will emerge from this with a well-funded political apparatus, putting him in a stronger position than any Democrat candidate,” Merritt said.

Trump has been raising money and has essentially continued to campaign since he won the 2016 election. For Biden, who only became the presumptive Democratic nominee last week after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out, the pandemic’s timing couldn’t be worse.

As Democrats coalesce around Biden, fundraising over the next few months will be critical. His operation had less cash on hand at the end of February — slightly over $11 million — than former candidates Sanders and Mike Bloomberg. Outside groups are also spending millions of dollars to boost Biden and Trump.

Biden hasn’t spent money on TV or digital ads since March 17, when he won Florida’s presidential primary but his campaign is still organizing digital-only, high-dollar fundraisers with supporters in Florida.

And on April 29, that’ll be a virtual gala with Biden and hosted by Fried.

For $1,000, “attendees” can join the event, an online fundraiser, where Biden will address his plan for COVID-19 and his “plan for the future.” A “co-host” designee, which comes with a VIP pre-conference gathering for anyone who raises $15,000 or more.

“I hope you are staying healthy,” Alicia Pardo, a fundraiser for the Biden campaign, wrote to potential donors in an email that went out Thursday. “In these unique times, we are preparing for an unprecedented campaign in more ways than one, and it’s critical that we build the resources we need to defeat Donald Trump, even in the face of the current crisis.”

The email began with a note about Biden’s plan to combat coronavirus and an explanation that all Biden fundraisers are currently virtual in order to comply with public health recommendations.

Fried’s advisers say she’s not raising money for her own campaign. Biden’s campaign declined to comment on fundraising efforts.

But for Miami’s congressional candidates, who are unable to command daily national media attention, the pandemic could drastically alter their ability to spend money on TV in the weeks before Election Day.

Incumbent Democratic Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala are still sending fundraising emails to supporters and accepting donations, though they are not putting in the typical hours of daily fundraising work a campaign usually would require.

Cam Savage, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican challenging Mucarsel-Powell, said that “the campaign has really not been active at all.”

“The limited social media and campaign communications have been shifted to echoing the guidance of the state, county and federal government and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Savage said.

But Mucarsel-Powell, Shalala and Gimenez have the ability to remain visible in their official roles during the crisis, holding digital briefings and assisting constituents trying to navigate Florida’s unemployment website or applying for a small business loan.

Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, who is challenging Shalala, doesn’t have that luxury as a private citizen, though she has used her Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote social distancing and stopped her political attacks on Shalala.

“Right now, you can’t be talking politics,” Salazar said. “That’s completely insensitive. Fundraising has dipped but we’re still working hard and getting results. People are not worried about the election, but they want to make sure the economic strengths we had before the virus continue after November.”

Small-dollar online donations have suffered as the coronavirus crisis has worsened, but not to the point that they have disappeared. A spokesperson for ActBlue, a small-dollar online donation vehicle for Democratic organizations and candidates, said the value of donations from the last two weeks of March for U.S. Senate candidates dropped 6% when compared to the first two weeks. Donations dropped 13% over that same period for U.S. House candidates.

The drop isn’t entirely related to donors holding back money, either. Candidates and organizations are also shifting requests, asking donors to give to charity instead, as Bernie Sanders did before suspending his campaign.

WinRed, the conservative counterpart to ActBlue, did not respond to a request for comment.

Alex Heckler, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser from Miami Beach who also serves as a regional finance director for the Democratic National Committee, said Friday that asking for political donations has been difficult but necessary.

“It is a difficult time to ask for campaign contributions. People are suffering. Families are hurting,” he said. “But you are put in a position of having to ask people with the means to give because Donald Trump has a growing war chest.”

Alex Daugherty

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.